15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed. (CEB)
Election Day is nearly upon us. Just when we thought we could avoid the confluence of religion and politics, Jesus goes and says something like this: something that reminds us that religion and politics do intersect, and that we do have responsibilities to both God and the state in which we live.
And yet, Jesus’ response to his false flatterers cannot be easily simplified. This text requires careful reading because it is neither an endorsement of uncritical patriotism, nor a sanctioning of thoughtless obedience to or support of our civil authorities.
One of the matters this encounter between Jesus and the Herodians and Pharisees forces us to consider is the right relationship between obedience to civil authorities and/or the state, and obedience to God. Some Christians, though well-meaning, take Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7 to mean that we ought not criticize governmental authority. Paul says, “There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established” (Romans 13:1b-2a CEB). Some take Paul’s words as a blanket statement that God unequivocally backs the government at all times and, if we oppose the government, then we stand in opposition to God.
Paul’s words can only mean that, however, when we take them out of their context in the letter to the Romans as a whole. Paul’s only concern in that passage was for Christians in Rome to pay their taxes rather than resist paying them as some Jewish revolutionaries advocated. Paul wrote, “You should also pay taxes for the same reason, because the authorities are God’s assistants, concerned with this very thing. So pay everyone what you owe them. Pay the taxes you owe, pay the duties you are charged, give respect to those you should respect, and honor those you should honor” (Romans 13:6-7 CEB).
Paul would never suggest that Christian faithfulness requires an uncritical obedience to human authority or government. On the contrary, Paul knew Holy Scripture too well for anyone to twist his words to mean uncritical obedience and unwavering support. God sent the prophets to critique and challenge the powers and authorities of the world. Faithful people are called—all the time—to challenge power when that power opposes God. We are called to speak truth to power.
Moses’ whole game was challenging Pharaoh because of the Egyptian king’s harsh treatment of human beings. Most of the prophets criticized and challenged governmental and religious authorities. John the Baptizer was murdered because he criticized King Herod. Jesus was murdered because he dared to critique the religious authorities, and they didn’t like it. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered for daring to speak God’s truth to power.
Criticism of government authority, and resistance against abuses of authority and misuse of power is a vast part of Biblical tradition. There is no getting around the fact that political activism that stands up for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the refugee, the immigrant, the have-nots, the powerless, and the disenfranchised is Biblical and faithful activity.
Contrary to one particularly dangerous strain of contemporary Evangelical Christian thought, God does not ordain and bless all secular rulers in some special way. There are people who believe that our government leaders, especially, are anointed by God. It did happen once. When King Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire let the Jews return home from captivity, he was identified with the title Messiah (c.f. Isaiah 45:1).
But one instance out of thousands does not suggest God’s blanket approval and/or special blessing of all government rulers. When we think that way, we run the risk of idolatry. To render unto Caesar does not mean that Caesar always does the will of God. If that were the case, God wouldn’t have bothered sending prophets to constantly call human authorities on the carpet. Oftentimes, rulers, authorities, and policies require critique.
The line that faithful people walk recognizes the distinction between politics, which includes paying taxes and our responsibilities to public life, and political partisanship. Partisanship in politics leads to the very uncritical obedience and loyalty to human powers that faithful people must avoid. Unflinching loyalty to a party or a system delves into idolatry. For those who claim Jesus Christ as their Lord, who desire to love God to the full, our loyalty must reside wholly in God rather than a human party or system.
A group of Pharisees and Herodians approached Jesus with honeyed words. It’s ironic that their phony righteousness and insincere speech speaks the truth about Jesus. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality” (Matthew 22:16b NRSV). “So, tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17 CEB).
Now, here’s the trick to the trick question. The Herodians were likely Jews who supported King Herod. King Herod’s authority came from the Roman Emperor. These Jews, therefore, likely approved of paying taxes to the Emperor. If Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay the tax to Caesar, then he would prove himself a loyalist to Rome. But, many Jews, especially the poor, resented this tax. They lived in a land occupied by an empire that had invaded and conquered them. To answer yes would have shocked and outraged the majority of the Jewish population but satisfied the Herodian and Roman authorities.
The Pharisees disapproved of the tax, which makes them unlikely partners with the Herodians. But, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, even if they’re my enemies, too. The Roman coin used to pay the tax, a silver denarius, was itself an example of blasphemy to most Jews. It had a graven image of Caesar Tiberius on it. The inscription on the coin said, “Tiberias Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” The coin ascribed divinity to the emperor’s father, and the Emperor was considered the high priest of the Roman Imperial Cult.
Obviously, many Jews understood this as idolatry and a violation of God’s Law. If Jesus had, for these religious grounds, said that the Law did not allow people to pay such a tax, then he would have reinforced his popular support among most of the Jewish people, and been labeled an agitator and seditionist against King Herod, Emperor Tiberius, and the Roman state.
But Jesus was aware of their malice, their evil intentions, and he turned the table on them. He called them hypocrites and asked why they were putting him to the test. Then, Jesus asked to see a coin because, it would seem, he didn’t carry one himself. So, one of his opponents pulled a denarius coin out of their purse and showed it to Jesus.
Some interpreters suggest that this act further exposes Jesus’ opponents as hypocrites because they had the idolatrous coin on their person, whereas Jesus did not. The problem with that assertion is that it assumes a Pharisee was the one carrying the coin. But we don’t know whether the bearer of the coin was a Pharisee or a Herodian because the text doesn’t say. What we do know is that it was unlikely that a Pharisee would have carried such a coin.
The Herodians, however, probably would not have had a problem with carrying one. So, it would not have been a big deal for a Herodian to pull this coin out of their purse. But a Herodian pulling such a coin from their purse surely would have given the Pharisees pause. It would have reminded the Pharisees that they had allied themselves with those they considered blasphemers and violators of God’s Law. They would have remembered how low they had stooped to ally with the Herodians. They would have been confronted with how they had compromised their adherence to the Law and the very beliefs they so dearly held. That is what would have exposed them as hypocrites.
And that’s what can expose us as hypocrites, too, isn’t it? We are not above similar rationalization. We are not above putting our desires ahead of God’s and convincing ourselves that what we want is what God wants.
Jesus simply asked whose likeness and inscription the denarius coin bore. When they replied that both belonged to Caesar, Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21b CEB). When Christians live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot avoid political responsibilities and commitments. To be clear, by political, I mean our responsibilities to our public and communal life together. But that does not mean we claim partisan politics or partisan ideology as God’s will. The moment we do that, we become idolators.
For Christians, to give to Caesar and to give to God is not a choice between two equal options. We belong to God, not to Caesar. Even if we belong—as in have associated with—a political party, we still belong to God. Our loyalty to God and to God’s will for human life must always come first. I have encountered people who seem so wrapped up in their political party of choice, and the authority figures of it, that their sense of identity and self would be compromised if they admitted their party leaders did something wrong.
We do not belong to Caesar. We do not belong to partisan political claims, ideologies, or systems. We do not belong to our possessions, to our careers, or to the nation in which we hold citizenship. We cannot give Caesar more than what Caesar is due. We cannot forge such a relationship with partisan politics that we’re forced to figure out how to fit God into Caesar’s pocket. Our greatest loyalty is to the One who made us. Our highest devotion and allegiance is to the One to whom we wholly, completely—in body and soul—ultimately belong.
The denarius coin bore the image and inscription of Caesar. Every human being in the world bears the image of God. We are God’s beloved children. And so are those people who are not citizens of the United States. Jesus reminds us that we should give to God what belongs to God. That means we live out our baptismal identity by giving God our lives, our devotion, our selves, our allegiance, our faith, our energy, our everything. To give to God what belongs to God means we fulfill the Law through complete devotion to God, and we express our devotion to God by showing genuine love for our neighbor, no matter who they are, what religion they practice, or where they’re from.
This is the only way we can fulfill the two greatest commandments of the Law as Jesus describes them: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:37b-40 CEB).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay